Crazy Smart Asia: Joseph Phua—Building Southeast Asia’s Biggest Dating Platform
In the eighth episode of Gen.T's Crazy Smart Asia podcast, M17 Entertainment Group's Joseph Phua talks about the dawn of the livestream era and leading as a human, not a boss
A few years ago, Joseph Phua was looking for a girlfriend. In Chicago, he was using up to 15 dating apps and meeting people every day—sometimes even double-booking dates. When he moved back to Singapore in 2013, he was surprised to find that Asia’s dating apps were nowhere as advanced as those he’d used in the US—so he made his own.
The app, Paktor, quickly became Southeast Asia’s most popular, with more than 20 million users across eight countries today.
Spotting opportunity, Phua's company widened its horizons over the next few years, transitioning to become a social entertainment company through a series of key acquisitions—the most notable being Taiwanese hip-hop artist Jeffrey Huang’s live streaming platform, 17 Media.
Now established as M17 Entertainment Group, the company is transforming how Asia dates and streams video—two fields seeing a huge increase in both users and revenue as a result of Covid-19.
In the final episode of the first season of Crazy Smart Asia, which chronicles the unexpected stories of Asia's disruptors, Phua talks to Gen.T editor Lee Williamson about how tech is changing dating, how our social norms will change post-pandemic and why he can never seem to say “no” (which is probably why he went on so many dates).
On emotional intelligence
"My mum always said, 'You need to learn how to become a person before you learn how to run a business.' If you cannot function like a normal human being, you cannot interact with people, you cannot empathise, you cannot pull everything together."
On the value of fear
"Everybody should be afraid. When you're making decisions, there should be a sense of fear. If there is no sense of fear you're probably not taking any type of decision that is unknown. You're being safe. If there is no fear, chances are you're not pushing your boundaries."
On navigating the pandemic
"The companies that will come out strong are the companies that push on and are not resistant to change. I think the biggest danger right now is for you to sit and wait, to ride it out.
"If you just sit and wait for 18 months, you’re done. The companies that will come through are not so much from a specific trend or specific industry. I think the companies that will come through are the companies that have leaders that are willing to change, willing to adapt now."
On Covid-19 as a catalyst
"We have been forced to embrace new things. We've been forced to adopt. This pandemic has pushed live streaming to the forefront. [A tech trend] that would have originally taken two, three or five years to adopt, possibly has been shortened to a year—or less. The pandemic has changed the landscape dramatically."
On building a business to solve your own need
"I was a single guy in Chicago going on a date every single day. Every single day as an Asian guy in Chicago—and on some days I would be double-booked. It was a lot of fun. I came back to Singapore for work and I realised that in Southeast Asia, these dating apps did not exist. I was concerned about how I would be able to date back home.
"So I decided that I wanted to create a product for myself. The plan was very simple: to get as many girls as possible on this application, with perhaps myself and a few guys. And then you have the whole pool to yourself. I was it was a very simple game of math. I never planned on building something for other people to use—it was for personal consumption."
"Contrary to what people believe, there isn't a strategy per say in that we will continue to acquire many companies. I find it difficult to believe that that's a strategy, because good companies don't come by just because you want good companies to come by. But I'm a firm believer that you don't have to build something from scratch if somebody has already done it."
On optimism and hard work
"My job is to be the most optimistic person in the company. My parents have always instilled this belief that nothing is out of reach, that you can achieve anything that you set out to do. As long as you're willing to put in the hard work, you will get there one day. A lot of times people sell themselves short; I often overreach, because I believe that as long as I get to work, I will get there one day.
"If you stop dreaming, then the pie you're going after is always going to be so big. So I’m always going to keep pushing, keep believing, even though I’m going to face difficulties every single day. If you don't face any difficulties then you’re not challenging yourself, you're not growing, and you will see yourself stagnate.
"And I honestly believe that everybody has the ability to create an impact. You just need to decide that you want to. I don't know why more people think that way."
Listen to all released episodes and subscribe using your preferred podcast platform on the Crazy Smart Asia hub page.